The gap between the proportion of disadvantaged pupils applying to university and their wealthier peers has narrowed to a record low, new Ucas data reveals.
However, headteachers today condemned the "grindingly slow" progress of widening university access to pupils from less privileged backgrounds.
The data from the universities admissions body shows that nearly a quarter – 24.6 per cent – of young people from the most disadvantaged areas have applied to be admitted to university this year, compared with 55 per cent of pupils from the most advantaged areas.
Profile: Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant
Comment: 'The university admissions system belongs to a different era'
Last year, 23.3 per cent of the least advantaged students applied to university, compared with 53.4 per cent of students from the wealthiest areas.
This year, the most advantaged students were 2.24 times more likely to apply than their disadvantaged peers – down from 2.3 times last year.
Headteachers say the progress is too slow, and that more needs to be done during early years education to address inequalities.
Widening access to university
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is great news that more disadvantaged students have applied for university this year and that the gap has narrowed with applications from advantaged students. But progress on this front is grindingly slow.
“This isn’t just a job for universities. Educational gaps between rich and poor begin from early in the lives of children and persist through childhood and adolescence.
"If we are ever going to genuinely address this issue, we must invest more in high-quality early years education, and provide better support for schools in areas of high disadvantage."
A total of 568,330 people from across the world applied by the 15 January deadline to start an undergraduate course at a UK university or college this year – an increase of 1.2 per cent compared with last year.
And a record 39.5 per cent of all UK 18-year-olds have applied, up from 38.2 per cent last year. This means 275,300 young people applied – an increase from 270,685 a year ago – despite 2020 projected to be the final year of a UK-wide decline in the overall number of 18-year-olds in the total population.
Over half of students in London applied to university – 52.6 per cent. It is the first time more than half of students in any region have applied by the January deadline.
Pupils in London are now 1.54 times more likely to apply to university by the 15 January deadline than those in the North East – the region with the lowest application rate.
Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, said: "Students are making the most of this year’s unprecedented opportunity to apply to university, as more applicants are expected to receive offers, the equality gap continues to narrow, and the UK’s 18-year-old population is expected to grow again in 2021."
The Ucas data also shows that fewer EU students applied to study at UK universities this year, but that soaring numbers of Chinese students were planning to study in the UK, with more applicants from China this year than from Wales and Northern Ireland.
Ms Marchant said that record applications from outside the European Union showed the "global appeal" of UK universities.
The latest figures show that the number of EU applicants dropped by 860 to 43,030, down by 2 per cent from last year.
The Ucas report said that the number of applications from EU students had been variable since the Brexit referendum in 2016.